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NORWICH, Conn. — For more than a decade, Major League Baseball claimed it was waging a war against performance-enhancing drugs. Late last month it made a significant move to clean up the sport.

Baseball will begin blood testing non-40-man roster players in the minors for HGH, or human growth hormone. Major League Baseball does not need players’ consent to implement this random testing, because players in the minor leagues are not members of the Major League Baseball Players Association.

When the time comes for the union and MLB to negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement, blood testing is expected to be a contentious sticking point on both sides. But closer to home, those who are immediately affected — the Connecticut Tigers — support the testing.

“I don’t mind it, I think it’s a long time coming,” shortstop Ryan Soares said, adding there’s a sense of pride in being clean. “I think it’s a big step in the process of trying to clean the game up.”

The Tigers players who spoke on the topic said they have yet to be tested.

Players who test positive will receive a 50-game suspension, the same punishment levied for steroid use.

While testing in the minors for HGH is new, there has already been one suspension. Atlanta minor leaguer Jordan Schafer was suspended 50 games in 2008 after it was determined he purchased HGH.

A pitfall in the testing is the use of some nutritional supplements and medications, which give no advantage, leads to positive test results.

To combat this, players are advised to consult with their team trainer, who will let them know if a product is approved or not. On the major league level, there is a telephone hotline — in English and Spanish — players can use to make sure their purchases are in compliance.

The Detroit Tigers require their players to speak with the individual’s team trainer, strength and condition coach or the minor league strength coach in Lakeland, Fla., to gain approval. The latter makes the rounds, visiting affiliates to keep them abreast of policies regarding supplements, so that it’s never out of mind.

“That’s too bad,” Connecticut manager Howard Bushong said of the sometimes tricky supplement situation. “That’s why our whole organization has to be careful about them, the products that they purchase at a gym or a health food store. It may seem harmless — and it may be harmless. But if it’s against baseball’s rules, well then that’s the thing (that gets people into trouble).”

Not everyone is pleased with the testing. Don Catlin, a scientist who developed a urine test to detect HGH, said MLB’s method is flawed.

“The fact that it’s been around a few thousand tests and only one positive suggests either that there’s much less growth hormone being used than thought, which is doubtful, or the period of detectability is pretty short — a few hours,” Caitlin told The Associated Press. “It’s probably the latter.”

Other critics claim blood testing, because it can reveal more than the test’s intended purpose, is an invasion of privacy.

Even though the players association is reluctant to agree to testing because it doesn’t believe there is reliable, accurate testing, several players have come out in support of blood testing.

The likes of the Yankees’ Lance Berkman and Derek Jeter, as well as the Phillies’ Roy Oswalt, believe blood testing is a step in the right direction.

Their argument is if there isn’t anything to hide, why fight testing. The goal, after all, is to clean up the game.

It’s a sentiment echoed at Dodd Stadium.

“It’s good for me,” said Josh Ashenbrenner. “It’s good for the people who don’t use, because it gives us more of a chance (to succeed).”

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NORWICH, Conn. — High above the field at Dodd Stadium, Clemente Mendoza has an odd vantage point of the field he calls home.

On this day, Mendoza isn’t taking the field as a starting pitcher for the Connecticut Tigers. Instead, he’s learning how to view baseball — and life — differently by learning English.

The Venezuelan is one of six Tigers participating in the team’s English for Speakers of Other Languages, or ESOL, class. The classes are conducted in association with the Norwich Department of Education.

With baseball featuring many players new to the United States, the Detroit Tigers are one of the franchises providing their players with an education in English.

Much like he would on the mound in his starts, Mendoza takes charge in the classroom.

Outgoing, friendly and further along in his understanding of English, Mendoza encourages his teammates in a situation that can be frightening for some.

“When you’re Latin, you don’t know English, so you’re afraid to speak to somebody,” Mendoza said. “You don’t like to make mistakes and that’s the reason people don’t learn English fast, because they’re afraid to make mistakes.”

Of those in the class, which meets as often as the schedule allows, three are from the Dominican Republic (Rayni Guichardo, Julio Rodriguez and Alexander Nunez), two are from Venezuela (Mendoza and Josue Carreno) and one is from Taiwan (Chao-Ting Tang).

Back to class

The players receive roughly 20 classes per season, as mandated by Connecticut’s Major League affiliate in Detroit. Throughout Detroit’s farm system, only the Double-A and Triple-A affiliates do not have ESOL classes, but that is predicated on the needs of those teams.

Taught by Jackie Shutsky, an adult education teacher with the city, the Tigers’ class structure encourages confidence and interaction with the players still developing language skills.

Adult education teacher Jackie Shutsky, left, leads a class which includes Connecticut Tigers Alexander Nunez, center, and Julio Rodriguez, right. (Photo courtesy the Norwich Bulletin).

There are textbooks, homework assignments and computer programs to assist in studying, as well as real-life situations in which the players can test their knowledge.

Because most of the players in the class haven’t been in a classroom setting in usually a few years before turning pro, class management is sometimes the biggest challenge. But so is the players’ tendency to speak their native language.

“That is difficult, they really fall back on it when they don’t understand something or when they’re asking each other something,” Shutsky said. “And it’s hard because they are a team and they’re so ingrained. It’s that piece (that) is so different than the classroom. In the classroom I can say, ‘No Spanish, only English.’ Here, they are such a team.”

Detroit Tigers International Player Programs Coordinator Sharon Lockwood oversees the classes throughout Detroit’s organization. She spent the previous decade in a similar capacity with the Cleveland Indians.

She mentions current big leaguers such as Victor Martinez, Fausto Carmona, Ramon Santiago and Jhonny Peralta as just a few who have benefited from these classes.

Star student

But it is Mendoza who she raves about.

“He just loves American things — the music, he loves shopping, communicating; he’s a communicator,” she said. “With guys like that, they’re naturally going to try to make that step.”

A year ago, Mendoza was hesitant to participate in English interviews, often asking for help. Now it is he who helps.

When Carreno speaks to the press, he seeks out Mendoza for assistance.

He knows how difficult it can be to work on baseball and English. The key, Mendoza said, is practice.

“You have to try to speak with coaches and teammates, so you have to practice your English every day,” said Mendoza, who added that verbs and pronunciation are his biggest hurdles.

In a recent class at the Yard Bar and Grill on the second floor of the stadium, the players sit around a table, discussing their homework assignment before moving on to the next lesson.

On this occasion, the Tigers were participating in role playing. Each took joy in watching the others perform their scripted parts.

The friendly ribbing between players helps them get added practice in the new language.

For this close-knit group, any reason is a good reason to tease — in English.

Necessary skill

For Rodriguez, who recently turned 21, the classes have heightened significance.

As a catcher, Rodriguez needs to be able to convey thoughts to his coaching staff as well as that night’s pitcher.

There’s no guarantee any of those people speak Spanish, so if Rodriguez, who was recently named a New York-Penn League All-Star, wants to continue to progress, he must learn English.

He is in his second year of classes and said it has become easier.

“It’s nice to communicate with the pitcher and manager,” Rodriguez said. “So if the manager goes to the mound, the pitcher is Latin and knows no English, I translate for the pitcher.”

Rodriguez uses phone conversations and chatting with friends via the Internet to improve his English.

“I couldn’t be more proud,” Connecticut manager Howard Bushing said. “Last year, when we had Rodriguez, he could hardly speak any English. And he’s put the effort in between last year and this year. He’s doing great, he’s communicating well.”

Character-driven

A player’s ability to thrive while learning a difficult language, Lockwood said, has a lot to do with their character. The more outgoing and motivated a person is, the more likely they are to succeed in grasping English. The frequency in which a player has to speak English can also determine success.

Norwich Board of Education Chairperson Charlie Jaskiewicz, who attended the class, said it takes three years to learn conversational English and five for scholarly English.

As a player’s career progress, the classes aren’t tailored to what level in the minors he is at, but the individual level at which he understands English.

Beginning this season, Detroit has implemented Comprehensive Adult Student Assignment Systems testing, or CASAS, to accurately measure listening and reading comprehension.

It isn’t the only means by which Lockwood determines what level to place each player, but it provides her a guide.

As it turned out, the curriculum she chose for the Tigers is the same one used by the city.

It’s not uncommon for players to not want to attend class, but as Lockwood points out, once they get into the swing of things they see the benefits.

“I don’t know of any of them who want to go to class,” she said. “Well, there may be a couple of them who secretly want to go to class, but they wouldn’t dare admit it to their teammates. … I find that as classes go on, they are into it and the light is going on, and they’re asking questions.”

Only now they can ask in two languages instead of one.

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NORWICH, Conn. — The sights and smells are still vivid to Travis Fryman. It’s been 15 years since he last got a whiff of the tobacco pipe smoked by legendary manager Sparky Anderson.

Whether it’s Anderson’s pipe, or his traditional pre-game bowl of soup with a Spam sandwich, every moment with the Hall of Fame skipper is memorable to Fryman, the manager of the Mahoning Valley Scrappers.

“Every day with Sparky Anderson was a thrill for me,” the Kentucky native said. “I grew up a Reds fan, like most people my age, the Big Red Machine. … To get to play for Sparky Anderson was the second-best thing to playing for the Reds in my mind.”

Former Tiger and Indian Travis Fryman is managing in Cleveland's farm system

Being around the likes of Anderson or teammates such as Alan Trammell, who helped teach Fryman the ropes in the majors, shaped who he would become. Fryman learned from Anderson’s patience — something the Scrappers’ skipper wasn’t known for as a player — and from his teammates’ willingness to pull him aside as soon as they felt words were necessary. That real-time guidance is something he hopes to share with his players.

It’s certainly rubbed off on those outside of the Indians’ farm system.

Connecticut Tigers catcher Eric Roof, who is from Paducah, Ky., grew up learning the lore of Fryman. Roof, whose father and uncle played in the majors, got to know Fryman.

Roof’s father, Gene, was Detroit’s first base coach from 1992-95.

“Travis is a great dude,” Eric Roof said. “I talked him last year because we played against him last year. Our family and his family still exchange Christmas cards every year. He’s even come down to Paducah to give a camp for my dad and his brother.

“I still remember that. That was back in 1994, so I was only eight years old. Growing up I was probably the biggest Travis Fryman fan you could think of.”

Great career

Fryman played 14 years in the majors, the first nine with Connecticut’s parent club, Detroit, before spending five seasons with Cleveland. The five-time All-Star was a .274 hitter with 223 home runs and 1,022 RBIs. He was also a Gold Glove winner at third base in 2000. Fryman’s first major league hit was a three-run homer against Kansas City’s Jeff Montgomery.

In his second season at the helm of the Scrappers, Fryman wasn’t sure if he wanted to get into managing. But after serving as a spring training instructor for the Indians, he decided to give managing a short-season team a try.

The schedule works out perfectly with his desire to spend as much time at home with his wife and three sons.

“It’s a way for me to have maximum impact on the game and minimum impact on my home life,” he said. “The half-season job is really a perfect fit for what I’m comfortable with and what my family is comfortable with at this point in time.”

In addition to managing Mahoning Valley, Fryman is also Cleveland’s primary organizational infield instructor and oversees infielders in the fall instructional league.

Despite his success on Lake Erie and his present allegiance, whenever Fryman thinks baseball he goes back to the organization that drafted him.

“When I dream or think about baseball, it’s always in a Tiger uniform,” he said. “I can’t really explain that — it just always is. In my mind’s eye, that’s what I see myself in. I love the Indians organization, proud to be associated with it, it’s a great place to work. But in my mind, I always had a Tigers uniform on.”

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